The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
The horsemen woke me up as they all trooped out at dawn, or what would have been dawn if the canyon weren’t so deep and narrow and the trees so dense. After my long day I was tired, really weary, and my left shoulder was sore, probably from the fall. I decided a leisurely morning was in order, so I stretched out getting up, getting dressed, eating, etc. Then I decided to take a good look at my blister. The moleskin was dirty and had shifted so I took it off, cleaned off all the adhesive, and made a new saddle to protect the blister, which had grown to over an inch long and half an inch wide. It looked ugly, but didn’t really feel too bad.
I talked a bit with Jane, a woman who had arrived after dark and camped 50 yards from me. She was doing the JMT over three years. Last year she had done the south, this year the middle. She bragged that she had cut down her pack to a really manageable weight by taking as little food as she could get by on–12 ounces per day, all freeze-dried. She also had a tent even lighter than mine, a single-skin Walrus that was now draped over a log to dry all the condensation. As always when camped next to a meadow on a clear night, I had left off my rainfly to avoid condensation.
I waited even longer, watching the deer roaming across the meadow and through the camp, hoping for a great close-up, but it was just too dark down in the canyon. Just as the sun lit up the meadow, the deer moved in under the trees. I put away my cameras, packed up and left. It was 9:15, my latest start by far.
A few minutes down the trail I saw a man sitting by the trail cleaning a camera and a set of lenses with professional care. I stopped to talk, thinking he was a photographer, and so I met Sweetpea. He works for the Park Service as a packer, running strings of mules around the park, resupplying backcountry rangers, escorting congressmen on “inspection tours” and, presumably, hauling out dried sewage from the chemical toilets at Little Yosemite Valley. He was hiking the JMT, fulfilling a long-standing ambition.
“Any problems?” I asked.
“Nothing special. I had snow the day I started and bad wind the four days passing the Thousand Island area and a bear tried to get my food at Mono Creek, got somebody else’s who hadn’t hung it as well as I did. But Toby Horst from Vermillion Valley made up for it. He was so nice. He was supposed to bring me my food box on the 12th. When he got to the landing and saw me he said, “Oh yeah, I forgot,” and he went back and made a special trip to get it! And he didn’t charge me but six bucks.”
“Sweetpea” seems an odd name for a man who runs strings of mules in the wilderness, it seems too botanic and feminine. It was like the camp names Girl Scouts like to assume, Sunflower, Fern, and so on. Boy Scouts don’t take individual “camp” names, but their patrol names fill the same need. Wolf, Bear and Cougar seem to be the most popular ones. Like the Girl Scout names, they act as a totem, giving the scout something in nature with which to identify, something to focus on.
Getting a name like that, or joining a patrol and assuming a totem, is a baptism. You are baptized in nature and, as in the root meaning of baptize, to immerse, you come forth from the primordial waters, reborn, and assume a new name, as any new person must.
Anyone who is passing from one life-state to another, who is to be “re-born,” must undergo certain “rites of passage” –tests of worth. For Scouts, these may be the accumulation of merit badges and achievement awards, especially the Boy Scout’s “50-Miler” for long hikes in the wilderness. For Teddy Roosevelt and the other members of the Boone and Crockett Club, the test was to have hunted and killed big game animals on foot–particularly grizzly bear, bison, and mountain lion. For The Sons of Daniel Boone, the precursor of the Boy Scouts, the test involved non-lethal wood-craft.
The tests vary, but in each case there must be something and, most often, it is ultimately a test of maturity. To stand your ground and fire as a grizzly charges. To persevere on a hike despite blisters, tired muscles, and heat. Or, as in the modern “outward bound” type programs, to sit alone, on a mountain or in a desert, and confront yourself in the womb of Nature. To meet the terrors of the wilderness world, whether bear, storm, heat or earthquake, and to know that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To meet and know yourself to be exactly as you are, placed where you are, neither at the top nor at the bottom of the cosmological heap but a part of all. When that concept is part of you, you are ready to come down from your mountain. You have passed your test, enacted you rite of passage, and been born again in the World. It is essentially the same for an Inuit Shaman, a Zen adept, or a hiker, with or without a botanical name, tramping along on the John Muir Trail.
As soon as I left Sweetpea I started seeing fresh bear tracks heading up the trail towards where he had camped. He had just been sleeping on the ground, not in a tent. I wondered if a bear would tend to get closer, to snuffle for scraps, or stay further away because it could see a person and not just a tent. The tracks were pressed deeply into the soft earth, obliterating the horseshoe prints from the preceding day. Twice, at wet meadows, they disappeared, then reappeared when the trail returned to the forest. The bear seemed to have been feeding in the meadows and using the trail simply as a highway. This was confirmed when I found a fresh pile of bear dung. It had no food wrappers at all. You can always tell a troublesome bear by the Mountain House labels in its dung.
I went slowly, still tired from my long day over Muir Pass. When I found a wonderful view, a peak called The Citadel towering impossibly high over the incredible green of Grouse Meadows, I sat on a rock to soak in the scene.
The three guys from Sacramento passed me, just stopping briefly to enthuse over the great fishing they had that morning in the river. I saw them again an hour later, sitting by Palisade Creek, ready to eat lunch and fish. I went on a bit further to have my lunch under the shade of some Lodgepole Pines next to the creek.
The JMT left the Kings River at Palisade Creek and ascended the valley. At first the grade was easy, but after a place called Deer Meadow–which is all overgrown with pines and no longer a meadow at all, it rises stiffly, brutally, in a stretch called the Golden Staircase.
The Golden Staircase was the last link in the John Muir Trail. It was blasted out of the living rock in 1938, 23 years after the trail work was started. The construction costs of the 211 mile trail had amounted to about $50,000.
I stated up the Golden Staircase about 2 in the afternoon. Immediately, the trees disappeared below me and the sun turned the surrounding white granite into a giant reflector oven, with me as the turkey. The Sacramento guys quickly passed me and disappeared among the folds of the slope.
In a few places, the trail ran through broken boulders where water ran down from invisible sources and irrigated lush little gardens, some only table-top size. These were splattered scarlet and saffron with flowers or carpeted with grass. But in between these mini-Edens, the trail led up through a real wilderness of rock, shattered, house-size fragments, smooth inclined planes, some near-vertical stretches of cliff.
And the worst of it was the sun. The slope faced full towards the mid-afternoon sky which was completely barren of clouds. The air temperature was only 74 degrees but the radiant heat was intense. My random selection of mental music soon settled on, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” and I sang it silently, endlessly, grimly, as I trudged ever higher.
Twice I reached “false summits” but after a brief respite the trail continued climbing, always higher, always in the sun. I had only about 2,000 feet to climb, but it was three solid hours work, the hardest work I did on the trail, much harder than Bear Ridge, the hardest hike I’d done in years. Finally I crossed a creek coming down from the Palisade Crest and sighted Lower Palisade Lake.
At the creek I bathed by head, hands and feet in the icy water and let my body cool off. Then I followed the trail down to the lake shore, expecting to find a campsite somewhere close to the water, in the middle of a bowl of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks.
I went on much further than I had planned, climbing higher, looking for the perfect campsite that eternally beckoned from somewhere just ahead. Eventually I found it.
Whitebark Pines often grow in a circle, from ten to thirty feet in diameter. The smaller ones provide bedding areas for deer, bighorn sheep, and highly mobile, solo hikers like Muir or John Sanroma. The larger ones can provide a protective windbreak and smooth, soft, level campsite for groups of hikers. This one seemingly had once sheltered a trail crew. Old trees that had been downed by an avalanche or wind storm had been set up in the spaces between the living pine trees, making an almost fort-like circle ten yards in diameter. I set up the tent, had some tea, washed in a nearby stream, and sat out on a nearby rock to take in the scene.
The sunlight that had tested my energy reserves coming up the trail now seemed to pervade the rock amphitheater with a cheery radiance that filled me with an unfocused good will. I spoke at length to a Belding’s Ground Squirrel, telling him not to bother with my food but to go on eating the radish- like greens that grew near the rushing creek. Then I spied a marmot on a rock, and I decided to sing to him. I sang “A Wand’ring Minstrel I,” “La Donna’e Mobile” –every tenor aria I could remember or fake, and he sat and watched me with his furry brown face intent. Then I tried the lugubrious bass of “Asleep In The Deep” and he disappeared with a sharp whistle of alarm.
At one point I became certain that some bighorn sheep must be grazing among the rocks above me, to the north. I scanned the area intently, looking for a telltale movement or an upcurving horn. I looked and looked but saw only rocks and shrubs and a few more dwarfed Whitebark Pine circles.
A few miles north of here, Muir had a close encounter with a band of bighorn sheep in 1873, an encounter he described several times in articles and books. It passes for a charming idyll of the mountaineer among nearly-tame animals, and a lesson in the superb mountaineering skills of the bighorn, but there is a deeper message. It is the complete identification of the observer with the sheep, the other animals in the canyon, and the landscape itself. It is a poem of the identity of all things wild and free, animal, vegetable, rock or man. Even before he sees the sheep, he sets the theme. The whole scene, he says, “was astir with wild life, some of which even the noisiest and least observing of travelers must have seen had they been with me.” Deer, grouse, squirrels, even, “a broad-shouldered wildcat showed himself.” Note the phrase, “showed himself” –which is what Pan or any other God does, he shows himself, he allows himself to be seen, but only if the observer is of the elect.
The next day, higher up the valley, while he was sitting in the midst of a cataract, “I chanced to look across the fall, and there stood three sheep quietly observing me.” Who is the observer, who is observed? “When they moved I watched every gesture, while they, in no wise disconcerted either by my attention or by the tumultuous roar of the water, advanced deliberately alongside the rapids…” The sheep are part of the scene, unaffected by the “tumultuous roar.” And by showing that they are equally unaffected by Muir’s presence in the midst of the water, they establish a link with him, showing that even Man can be part of the Wilderness, part of the natural world.
I didn’t see any sheep, but I sat on my rock, watching, listening, listening to a bird singing taps from one of the trees by my tent. It was in just such a physical position that I had heard the singing of the water my fourth night, just below Donohue Pass. And now, just as the sun was nearing the mountaintops to the west, below the Golden Staircase which I had struggled up that afternoon, I again heard that music. It drifted at the limit of my perception like a tune from an alpine horn, three valleys away. It softly echoed with the last carmine light on the highest peak to the east of me, Mt. Bolton Brown.
Muir wrote once, but never published, his description of this mountain music. “There is always heard, even on the stillest days, a kind of fine aeolian harp music in the air. This is always heard–a sort of world harp, giving out immortal, unceasing melody, in unison with all the stars of the sky, for this is still the morning of creation and the sound of work in world-making is eternal.” The music is eternal, omnipresent, though most of us hear it rarely or never.
The music faded with the light, but I felt no sadness at either passing. I simply sat, as the sunbeams dissolved in air scattered about me, lighting with ever-less intensity the rocks, the trees, the lake, the sky, the birds, the marmots, and I. Sitting on my rock.
The sky darkened till only a glow remained, then that too faded and the stars came out. I thought of my wife, as so many times on this trip. But now, though I was the only human for miles around, I no longer felt lonely. I felt rather that the distance between us was as immaterial as the fading light, or the beams from the stars.
Starlight, sunlight from other suns. It crossed the blackness, arriving at this speck in space eons after the fires that created it had burnt out, collapsing, perhaps, into a black hole. But the light from those long-vanished stars was shining on me, and the whole basin shimmered with that light.
Close by in space, behind the earth beneath my feet, our own sun was blasting out streams of charged particles and photons, the stuff of Light. A fraction of this radiance washed against the moon. Most was absorbed but the photons, Light itself, bounced off. Moonlight. Muir wrote:
“O Mrs. Carr, that you could be here to mingle in this night moon glory! I am in the Upper Yosemite Falls and can hardly calm to write … How significant does every atom of our world become amid these influences of those beings unseen, spiritual, angelic mountaineers that so throng these pure mansions of crystal foam and purple granite.”
I had watched the last touch of sunlight on the highest rocks of Mt. Bolton Brown. Now that peak stood out in silhouette as the light of the sun, purified by the moon, lit the air that hung above the rocks. Photons grazed those rocks and some pierced my eyes. Transformed into nerve impulses, the photons stimulated my brain with a simple message–Light. The rim of the moon appeared over the peak.
When the moon began to appear, two things happened. The halo around the peak vanished, and the landscape became visible. The rock beneath me, the pines enveloping my tent, the gentians, columbine, and Cassiope, the stream, and I– all were bathed in that same flood of purified light derived from the explosive fury of the Earth’s nearest star.
But the strongest feeling of all this light, the most powerful part of the whole experience, was the certain knowledge, vivid though un-verbalized, un-rationalized, that this same light was shining on the other side of that mountain, and in the smoke and car-thick mist of Yosemite Valley, and on my wife at home, and on everyone and everything and everywhere else I knew or could imagine.
I watched the moon emerge, nearly full, from behind the mountain. It rose in the starry sky. I watched. Sometime later, I went to bed. And from my sleeping bag, in my tent, with the door open, I watched it cross the heavens, arching over my nest of pines, while the stream sang, and the rocks glittered alive in the moonlight, sunlight, starlight. Light.